Whale Watching in Panama
Humpback Whale Migration Near Playa Venao
Every year, thousands of humpback whales leave their feeding areas during the colder months and migrate to tropical seas near the Equator to breed and give birth to their young. According to NOAA, humpbacks migrate farther than any other mammal. These whales travel from 3,000-6,000 miles between their feeding and breeding grounds. Ocean temperatures affect how long the whales stay in an area.
Whale Watching Season
Panama and Costa Rica are the only waters that receive humpback whales from both Northern and Southern Hemispheres. From December to April, several hundred humpbacks arrive from North America. The main whalewatching season however, is from late June to mid-October, when several thousand humpback whales arrive from Antarctica. The whales migrate over 6000 miles to breed and give birth.
Whale Watching in Playa Venao and Pedasi
The whales come very close to the Pacific Coast of Panama – this includes Pearl Islands/Contadora (near Panama City), Isla Coiba (near Santiago/Santa Catalina), and the Azuero Peninsula. Yes, that includes Pedasi and Playa Venao!
Whale watching is amazing in this area, and often only requires a 10-20 minute boat ride offshore to view groups and mom/calf pairs. Occasionally you can see them from shore. Unlike in other whale watching areas, the whales in these shallow waters tend to be more playful and stay near the surface, diving for only short periods of time.
Mom/calves typically “hang out” for a few days before moving on. Though infrequently, sometimes late in the season we’ve seen playful calves accidentally wander into the bay of Playa Venao to check out some of our surfers!
What to Expect on a Whale Watching Tour
The best chance for a sighting occurs in the morning. Typically these tours depart between 6-9am.
During a whale watching tour, you may witness the following:
- Male humpbacks in “rowdy” groups: a group of 3+ males competing for the female’s attention. These sightings are rarer, but are seen near Isla Iguana. They present the best chance of seeing a “breach,” or a complete jump out of the water as they vie to become the female’s mating partner.
- Female humpback, often with the calf. A female is pregnant for 11 months, which means she first travels to Panama to breed, migrates back to polar waters to feed, then returns back to Panama’s shallow, warmer waters to give birth. The mothers nurse their calves for about 1 year, so they stay close to the shore to avoid predators while teaching their newborn calves how to swim and hunt.
Some typical whale behaviors:
- Breaching: when a humpback propels itself completely out of the water. Common beliefs are that breaching is done to eliminate parasites, for fun, or in the case of males, to show off their strength to their female partners!
- Pectoral slap: slapping the water surface with their flippers (side fin).
- Tail slap: slapping the water surface with their tails. Commonly thought to be forms of communication, aggression, or a way to show dominance.
- Blow: explosive bursts of air when the whales come to the water surface to breathe.
- Spyhop: when a whale raises head out of the water, so it can see above the surface.
- Logging: when a whale floats quietly on the surface.
- Flukes up: when the whales raise their tail flukes in preparation for a long underwater dive.
- Whale songs: males make unique squealing, lowing sounds in breeding areas.
The humpback whales that can be seen off the coast of Panama are still endangered, even though their population is finally increasing.
One of the reasons why it has taken so long to increase the humpback whale’s population is that the females only have babies once every 2-3 years. A mother humpback will carry her calf for 12 months. The calf is born 3-5 meters in length and 900kg in weight. Most humpbacks live for around 50 years.
Responsible Whale Watching
Panama’s ARAP dictates that whale encounters may not surpass 30 minutes, and the boat must maintain a minimum of 5 meters with the whales.
A Few Tour Operators in the Area:
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(Tours in Spanish) Launches from the Cañas marina and circles the open waters outside Playa Venao and El Ciruelo. Captain Jairo, a Cañas local, knows the waters in this area like the back of his hand. The dawn as seen from the waters near Venao is truly something. Price: flat rate of $150 up to 5 people.
(Tours in English/Spanish) Launches from Playa Arenal in Pedasi and circles around Isla Iguana. The boat segment is relatively shorter compared to other tours as the main attraction is the day trip to Isla Iguana (snorkel gear, snacks provided). Price: $160 up to 2 people, or $53/adult ($27/child) for groups 3+.
(Tours in English) Launches from Playa Arenal in Pedasi. The whale watching can be packaged as part of a day trip to Isla Iguana or a half-day fishing expedition. Aboard a fully-equipped Contender with an expert captain (Craig, a Pedasi transplant and owner of Lajagua), the trip will be nothing short of luxurious. Price for the fishing package: $100/hour (minimum 4 hours) +10%, up to 4 people.
Try to Organize Yourself
If you speak decent Spanish and don’t mind bringing your own amenities, you can head straight to Playa Arenal, and try to arrange with a local fisherman in Pedasi. There are usually a few waiting to take tourists to Isla Iguana at Playa Arenal. The roundtrip fare to Isla Iguana is about $60 (this includes the fishermen’s time spent waiting at the island) for a half-day/full-day trip. Whale watching will cost a bit more as it uses more gas. Not all practice responsible whale watching practices however.
If you are in Panama City but your schedule doesn’t allow you enough time to make it out to Azuero, I recommend Whale Watching Panama based out of the city. The tour is on a 60-person boat so may be less intimate. But it is organized by a team of ecotourism experts (including a Marine Biologist Ph.D). The tours depart weekly (Saturdays) during season, and heads to the Pearl Islands (Contadora). $150 per adult / $85 per child (5-12) and includes lunch.